Paul Kennedy on Debut Feature, Made in Belfast
Writer/director Paul Kennedy on opening the Belfast Film Festival on April 11 with his debut feature that's 'not about the Troubles'
If Michele Devlin and her fellow organisers at the 2013 Belfast Film Festival were in any way trepidatious about opening with writer/director Paul Kennedy's debut feature, Made in Belfast, they needn't have worried. Thursday night's marquee screening had long since sold out when a second – scheduled to take place simultaneously at the Dublin Road Cinema only last Friday – promptly sold out too.
That might have had something to do with the opening weekend success of Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's Terri Hooley biopic, Good Vibrations, which went on general release in the UK and Ireland only a week before the Belfast Film Festival kicks off. (Cue two-page splashes on 'the next big thing'.) Or maybe the Northern Irish public are finally getting excited about Northern Irish cinema.
Either way, to sell out a 300-seat venue in four days is no mean feat, particularly with so many other venues vying for the public's attention in a Belfast brimming over with shows. So how does it feel to be in the centre of a hype storm?
'I didn't realise I was,' laughs Kennedy, fresh from signing off on the final edit of Made in Belfast at Ka-Boom Studios in Belfast. 'When we heard that the second screening had sold out in less than a week, it was hard to take in. But I'd much rather that than play to empty houses. It's overwhelming to realise that the demand is there, and that people want to see the film. I'm very grateful.'
First impressions of Kennedy is that he is an unflappable character, someone with a Zen-like approach to filmmaking and the promotional hoppla that comes with success. It's not necessarily the plaudits that he's after. (The businessman in him is more interested in how the sales agents react on Thursday, rather than family and friends.) For Kennedy, it is more about the sense of accomplishment one derives from achieving a creative vision, the satisfaction of a job well done.
'What we managed to achieve in such a tight time frame and on such a modest budget is quite incredible,' he reflects, allowing himself a fleeting moment of self-congratulation now that post-production is done and dusted. 'The film has got great performances from a great cast who tell the story well, I think, and that's all I was ever worried about.'
33-year-old, Belfast-based Kennedy is best known as an actor, and has spent the past ten years treading the boards around Ireland and working 'on TV sets and film sets with good directors and not-so-good directors'. Directing was always an ambition. 'I wanted to be like the good ones,' he muses. 'I knew how I wanted to treat people and how I would get the best out of my actors.'
A brush with Hollywood in 2008 – after he managed to sell his first screenplay to a Los Angeles-based studio – prepared him for life at the helm of a full-scale movie production.
'It was a Western that never got made, but to have had a script optioned was quite an achievement. It taught me a lot about the business of filmmaking. Once a script is optioned, it's an uphill struggle to try to raise finances. You start to deal with lawyers and that kind of thing. Nothing is ever straight-forward in this business. I didn't get burned or anything, I just had my eyes opened.'
A workshop back home, organised by Northern Ireland Screen in conjunction with the London-based Raindance Film Festival, provided Kennedy with the opportunity to develop a new filmmaking philosophy away from the cut and thrust of LA, a philosophy that enabled him to make Made in Belfast on a 'micro-budget'.
'That course really inspired me,' he recalls. 'It was all about how to make movies with very little money or experience. It taught me that you have to go at this thing with a positive mental attitude and trust that your film will get made. Yes, you will encounter a lot of negativity along the way, but you always have to keep in mind that you're going to do it.'
Made in Belfast is the story of Jack Kelly, a young writer who returns to Belfast from self-imposed exile in Paris for his father's funeral. There, the cast of Kelly's debut novel, also entitled Made in Belfast, are assembled – the friends and family he chose to write about, and who were not best pleased with the results.
The film stars Belfast actor Ciarán McMenamin (pictured above), a long-standing friend of Kennedy's, in the lead role, and was part financed by Northern Ireland Screen and a collection of well-meaning private investors, 'friends of friends, mainly'.
Kennedy began writing the screenplay in late 2011. 'It was something I had to get out of me, a story about Northern Ireland that was not about the Troubles.' When the first draft was completed, and Kennedy realised that it was good, he spent the next year working on it almost exclusively, revising drafts and assembling cast and crew.
Friends and acquaintances from the theatre world came on board, as well as a number of professional filmmakers like director of photography, Kevin Treacy, and Kennedy looks back on the shoot as a steep learning curve, but a process that he nevertheless enjoyed.
'We shot the whole movie in 13 days in Belfast and one day in Paris, which is kind of unheard of for a feature. We really planned it meticulously and worked fast. I'm not sure I would do it again in a hurry, but I got a thrill from doing the edit, watching it back, looking up at the screen at the actors saying my lines and thinking, "God, I wrote that. I remember sitting on my sofa writing that scene". It's kind of surreal.'
Although he has worked in London and elsewhere as an actor, Kennedy is quick to point out that Jack's story of returning home to a Belfast that he would rather have forgotten is not autobiographical.
'Obviously when you're writing a story there's always going to be a little bit of the writer's personal politics in there,' Kennedy says. 'But there's very little of me in the movie. I'm 33-years-old and I still haven't figured out what my personal politics are. There are certain scenes in the movie that are political with a small p. But, because of the nature of where we're from, I'm sure people will see metaphors where perhaps there are none.'
In order to stave off the nerves, Kennedy is imaging the Belfast Film Festival premiere as the film's first 'test screening', which will ultimately decide the immediate and long-term future for Made in Belfast – whether or not a tour of film festivals would be viable, and the likelihood of a general release later in the year. Yay or nay, Kennedy is simply happy to be working, and considers it 'an honour' that anyone would mention his film in the same breath as Good Vibrations.
'It's a brilliant film,' he beams. 'Lisa and Glenn are good friends of mine, and I acted in their debut, Cherrybomb. It's very satisfying to see that their film is doing so well. Hopefully I will enjoy the same success with Made in Belfast. Fingers crossed.'
In the meantime, and with Made in Belfast now firmly in the can, Kennedy lets slip an exclusive – information on his next project, an adaptation of playwright Pearse Elliot's Fisher's of Men.
'I recently bought the rights and am working on developing it into a screenplay right now. Hopefully we will start shooting later this year or maybe the start of next year. I'm going out to Cannes to spread the word and try to raise a little money for it – we'll need a lot more than what it took to make Made in Belfast. There's some beautiful imagery in Pearse's play, and I would love to try to turn that into a movie.'
The Belfast Film Festival runs from April 11 – 21. Visit the festival website for more information on events and booking.